Closer, but no cigar

posted 17 February 2005

Ooopsie, failed to blog yesterday. So take a bonus extra-long blog today.

So, I went to see Closer with Ade yesterday. I can't say I thought much of it. If you've yet to see this movie, stop reading, because spoilers start now.

So, what was in this movie?

  • Three extremely pretty people
  • Some extremely good acting on the part of Natalie Portman
  • Excellently written dialogue

So why didn't I like it? I had a few minor gripes, like Julia Roberts being entirely unconvincing as a photographer, and Jude Law entirely too energetic and focussed to be a failed anything, far less an obituary writer. And overall, it was just blah. The plot rolled along in a 100% predictable fashion. I mean, it was a play before it was a movie, so lots of people would have known the plot already going in. But even the plot of the play was predictable. Nothing surprised me, no new ideas were presented, no emotion was provoked. It was just watching an excellently-portrayed slice of some other people's not particularly believable lives, and life is an endlessly tedious affair.

I often feel obscurely guilty about not liking "good" movies: the ones people say are great, like Apocalypse Now, often just don't do anything to me. I've always felt that this is because movies, like books, can do two things: they can tell a story, or they can introduce new ideas. If they are very good, they can do both at the same time, but usually they concentrate on one or the other. However, I only like the latter.

The thing about stories that bores me is that there's nothing new in them. They take a kaleidoscope of elements and give it a shake: sure, it's different every time, and it can even be pretty, but ultimately it's limited unless you but something else into the can. The new ideas are the new sparkles in the can, and a story with no new sparkles is just boring. Stories set in the real world, and the current day, are the absolute worst: they deliberately refuse to add any sparkles. The best that a story set in the present day can do is be 100% believable. But once this mark is reached -- although it's quite difficult -- there's nowhere to go, and in fact you've not gone very far. You've just rearranged bits of other people's lives into a new shape. Whereas when you start adding new ideas, there's no limit to how far you can take things.

Anyone who knows me has heard this argument time and again, as justification of my reading nearly exclusively science fiction, but actually that's not my genre: my genre is stories with new ideas, which are found predominantly in science fiction, but also in other genres -- the genre-busting work of Neal Stephenson, whose book Quicksilver I am currently reading, being a good example.

So that's what I didn't like about Closer: the lack of anything new. But then, Ade pointed out a few things, like the cigarettes being a metaphor for their relationships. And it made me think: maybe it's not that it was a crap movie. Maybe I just didn't get it. Maybe I'm a philistine. Maybe the reason I miss things (like the emotions of others) in real life is that, like movies, I think I understand everything I see but am really not even scratching the surface. Maybe there were new things to see in there, and I didn't see them.

I may be overreacting. But I often feel about songs, the way that people who love movies say they feel when explaining movies to me: that people miss huge chunks of hidden meaning and extra references and homages and double entendres and clever ideas and imaginative changes. Because people don't listen to music, they just hear the pretty noises. So am I a movie philistine? Do I just watch the pretty pictures instead of seeing the story? It's a horrible thought for someone who's as much of an intellectual snob as I am, I can tell you. And of course, there's the implication that I may be doing it in real life as well: seeing the obvious but missing the subtext. An even more regrettable loss.

So what to do about it? How can I be sure that I'm not missing the clever bits in movies? Suggestions on a postcard (or in the comment box at the top-right of this post) please...

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Time dilation

posted 17 February 2005

(There you go, a bonus blog to make up for yesterday. Apologies to Neal Stephenson for nicking his writing style for this entire piece. This is what happens when you write trilogies of 500-page books, Steve)

It's often remarked that time speeds up as you get older. People always say this as if it's some unknowable aspect of life, but actually the explanation is not only known, but also really simple. Time doesn't speed up, but your memory of time passing does.

Your brain is a great big information processing device designed to help you survive long enough to pump some sperm into something if you are male, or drop a sprog if you are female. It's phenomenally complicated, and for a sack of grey goo, amazingly good at its job. One of the major side-effects of its sperm-protection ability is that it provides us with memory. This allows us to observe the world based on what we have already seen, and thus react more quickly to everyday occurences like the sun rising and rain being cold, saving expensive think-time for more complex problems, like finding someone who will agree to accept our sperm.

Because memory is also expensive, your brain does it very efficiently, making extensive use of deltas. Take, for instance, a sunrise: a gigantic spherical thermonuclear bomb in a constant state of explosion, contained only by the gravitational force of its own fuel, going off right next door, far enough away not to roast us all instantly, but exactly close enough to be pleasantly warm. That's all stunning, but once you've seen one sunrise, you have, essentially, seen them all: you know it's not going to fall down, and that in a certain amount of time it will go away again, and then rise the next day. Your brain, therefore, does not waste precious goo remembering every sunrise you have ever seen in your life. Instead, having remembered one, it then compares any subsequent sunrises to that one, and only bothers to note the difference, or delta, between any subsequent sunrise and your "base" sunrise. So while you may remember a few exceptional sunrises, the majority will just be remembered as a generic "I saw a sunrise" pointing back to that original memory of what a sunrise looks like.

And it is this habit of remembering only differences that produces the strange effects of time that we so often remark upon. When we are children, practically everything is new to us. Therefore, the brain lays down a lot of new memories. Our first taste of jam, our first day of school, our birthday parties, our bicycles: all of these things are radically different to our previous experiences when we are five years old, so our brain spends some time on them.

But as you get older, the proportion of new things that you run into every year gets rapidly smaller. By the time you're in your mid-twenties, in fact, the only time something genuinely new happens to you is when there's a major upheaval in life: you get a new job, or a new partner, or a new house, or you go on a vacation to somewhere you've never been before. These events are months apart.

Where the fault lies is that our perception of our memories is that they are linear -- i.e., in any two periods of time of equal length, there should be an equal number of memories. This is because, perversely, our brain does not understand its own manner of operation. Our memories are not at all linear. When we are five years old, the time for five brand new memories to accumulate is perhaps a few weeks. When we are twenty-five years old, that many new things might not happen in a whole year. So to us, it seems like time is passing more quickly.

It also explains other effects. When one moves into a new house -- as I have just done, which is why I thought to blog about this phenomenon -- one often remarks, after only a day or two, that "it seems like we've been here forever, doesn't it?" This is sometimes taken as proof that the house is a good one. But actually it's just because you're in a new location: lots of new rooms, furniture, streets, shops and public transport links to remember, so your perception of all these memories makes it seem like a lot of time has passed. The same effect happens on vacations to exotic locations: lots of new experiences make the vacation seem longer, so you feel you had a great time. But remembering this, next year you go again and do all the same stuff, and you remark "the time just flew by!" because your brain has seen this all before.

So looked at one way, time stays constant, and it is your perception of it is what is changing. But if you're going to get really metaphysical about things, what is time but our perception that things in the universe happen one after the other? We cannot observe the past or the future: therefore, time exists only in our memories. Therefore, in another sense, time does speed up and slow down, all the time, at different rates for everyone.

So if you feel like life is rushing past you, do something entirely new: the world will skid to a halt, and you can jump back on.